Boeing 737 Max set to return to U.S. skies after crashes

An American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX airplane takes off on a test flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, on December 2, 2020.

Cooper Neill | AFP | Getty Images

MIAMI — American Airlines on Tuesday is set to operate the first U.S. commercial flight of Boeing‘s 737 Max since two deadly crashes prompted a worldwide grounding of the planes in March 2019.

American Airlines Flight 718 is scheduled to depart Miami International Airport at 10:30 a.m. ET for New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier is operating a once-daily roundtrip flight between the two airports and then plans to increase service to other cities in the coming weeks. United Airlines plans to start Max flights on Feb. 11 from its Denver and Houston hubs. Southwest Airlines has said it would start flying the planes in the second quarter.

Brazilian carrier Gol, which operates an all-Boeing 737 fleet, earlier this month was the first airline to relaunch the jets. The planes, more fuel-efficient than previous models, are central to the plans of airlines around the world, with more than 3,000 of them on order.

The milestone flights come after the largest grounding in U.S. aviation history was ended just over a month ago after the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Max to fly again, signing off on several safety-related changes Boeing made to the aircraft, its bestselling plane.

Pilots in both crashes — Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Ethiopia in March 2019 — battled an automated flight-control system that was erroneously activated. All 346 people on the two flights were killed. Changes included making the flight-control system less aggressive, providing more redundancy and implementing more robust pilot training that includes time in a flight simulator.

Damning investigations in the wake of the crashes found problems with the plane’s development, design and certification by U.S. regulators, tarnishing the reputation of Boeing and the FAA, long the gold standard in aviation safety. The crashes also prompted new legislation tightening the FAA’s oversight of aircraft certification.

Family members of several victims have urged regulators in the U.S. and abroad not to lift their flight bans on the jets, calling the planes unsafe.

American and other carriers that operate the Max have said that if customers booked on the aircraft don’t feel comfortable flying on the plane, they can switch flights without paying a fee if options are available. American Airlines hasn’t registered travelers booking off the jet for other flights, an airline spokeswoman said.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson last month told CNBC he is “100% confident” in the jets and that a repeat of the scenarios that led to the two crashes is “impossible.” Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines pilot flew the plane himself in September.

Airline executives have flown on the planes recently to try to boost confidence from the public.

Analysts expect a high level of scrutiny of the jets as they make their way back into commercial fleets. An Air Canada 737 Max that was being ferried without passengers on board from a storage facility in Marana, Arizona, to Montreal diverted to Tucson, Arizona, last week after pilots received an engine warning.

“The truth is anytime there’s a problem with the 737 even if it’s a coffee maker on the fritz, it’s going to be news,” said Henry Harteveldt, a former airline executive and president of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel consulting firm. He said that while some travelers may opt for other aircraft at first, if there aren’t any major issues “it will be seen as just another plane.”

The plane is returning to a dismal air travel market because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Airlines have slashed capacity this year, a stark contrast from 2019 when they were clamoring for the jets’ return to meet passenger demand.

“In a way, the best thing for the 737 Max has been that it is has taken them 20 months to get the planes ready to going back into service and for almost a year we have had news of the coronavirus that has consumed more attention related to travel than the 737 Max,” said Harteveldt.

American ordered 76 of the planes and had 24 in its fleet at the time of the grounding. The pandemic and lengthy grounding had prompted airlines to cancel or defer hundreds of orders. This has also hit prices for the jetliners and some carriers have sensed an opportunity to buy. Alaska Airlines, for example, last week upsized its 45-plane order by 23 in a big bet on the Max.


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